JOHN OSBORNE AND Look Back in Anger

JOHN OSBORNE(1929-1993)

LIFE AND WORKS: The name of John Osborne is linked with his first successful play Look Back in Anger. He was born in London in 1929 in a lower middle-class family. He didn’t like school very much. At the age of 15 he was expelled from a public school for hitting the headmaster and   two years later he left it and began working. In 1948 he became an actor and stayed with a touring company for some years and then he started writing plays and worked both in the theatre and in the cinema. He was also a co-founder of a film company that produced excellent films, such as Tom Jones based on the famous 18th century novel by Henry Fielding, and he received the Film Academy Oscar Award for the script.

Among his works we can mention some plays such as The Entertainer (1957) which was later made into a very successful film (it is about a music-hall comedians, Archie Rice, who feels he is a failure and destroys himself by drinking), Luther (1961) on the well-known conflict between Luther and the Roman Catholic Church and directly inspired by Berthold Brect’s Galileo, Inadmissible Evidence (1964), A Patriot for me (1965) and Watch it Come Down (1976). None of these plays, however, was as successful as Look Back in Anger (1956).

FEATURES: Osborne has been considered by some critics as a left-wing dramatist even if he never seriously took a political activity. He was simply a rebel with a strong personality, who had lived in a family in which there was an everlasting conflict with parents and who had struggled against British Institutions using a new language for the theatre, the language of the young generation of his age crying for a better future. He recreated the inflection of contemporary English and used the new jargon and the fashionable expressions of his age. The weakness of much of his plays is the repetitiveness of characters and idioms and his relying rather too much on invective.

MAIN THEMES: The theme of the struggling against Institutions is Osborne’s main theme. All of his plays are pleas for justice, freedom and tolerance. They all, with the exception of The Entertainer, deal with social indignation and the plight of the individual as a victim of his society.

CHARACTERS: All his characters are Osborne’s voice. They are given dramatically effective long speeches to voice Osborne’s sense of frustration. They appear disorganized, restless, drifting and frustrated, but they all struggle against the status quo and the apathy of Institutions. They share a sense of isolation, nostalgia for a world of certainties, the refusal to yield with a compromise with the new age of indifference. Osborne’s characters can be regarded as heroical anti-heroes. All of Osborne’s plays have got as unifying feature the use of language and the one character play. There is always a strong character around whom minor characters seem to revolve like satellites.

OSBORNE/BECKETT– Analogies: They both wrote in the 1950s/60s and even if in a different way they gave voice to modern man’s existential problems: lack of identity, uncertainty to the self and to environment, pain of being alive in a meaningless universe, isolation and break down of communication. Their plays have got the same circular and symmetric structure, lack of action and are essentially static and repetitive. Both Waiting for Godot and Look Back in Anger express a strange sense of claustrophobia: Vladimir and Estragon are trapped in a nightmare they cannot escape and Alison and Jim in a small room they cannot leave. Whatever they do is easily seen as an effort at spending the time so as to feel in their inner emptiness.

Differences: The most striking difference is that Osborne’s plays are very verbose whereas Beckett’s ones seem to contain pauses, silences and pantomime. In his works the spoken world gradually disappears according to his vision of a cruel and sadist God who it is impossible or useless to talk to.  Osborne criticized the non verbal drama because he believed that, as he wrote, “words are our last link with God … the verbal breakdown is getting to the point where it is dangerous and nonsensical.”



It was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London, on the 8th May, 1956 and had an immense success. When it appeared on the stage, Look Back in Anger brought some innovation in the English Theatre for its political commitment, for its characters and for the language in which it was written, shocking in its realism and violence.

THE PLOT: it is centred on the marital problems of Jimmy Porter, a very complex personality who is full of anger for a dreary deluding present. He is a University graduated who makes a living by running a market sweet stall. He is married to Alison and they share their flat with Jimmy’s friend, Cliff, for economic reasons. They belong to different social classes and that leads to many conflicts between them. Alison, who is pregnant, following the advice of her friend Helena, leaves Jimmy. Jimmy starts an affair with Helena. In the end Jimmy and Alison are together again. They try to find out a way out to live together even if they are not able to resolve their problems and conflicts. As we can see, the plot is rather conventional: it is the eternal triangle theme.

STRUCTURE: Like Waiting for Godot, Look Back in Anger has got a circular structure: the three acts start and finish in the same place, Jimmy’s flat, at the same time, a Sunday morning, with the same setting with the characters doing the same actions in the third and first act: Jimmy and Cliff engaged in their everlasting discussion about Sunday’s papers and Helena and Alison engaged with the ironing-board and dressed in the same way, wearing a shirt of Jimmy’s. In both acts Cliff undresses on the stage. Osborne uses this closed-cycle technique to restore actual life to the stage and to convey the dullness and repetitivity of everyday routine life.

As we can see, from the point of view of the structure, the play is not revolutionary; it follows the traditional pattern of the well-made play: exposition, climax or complication or denouncement, final resolution of the action. Look Back in Anger shocked the audience for the language, the accurate realism of its setting and for its socialist themes.

THE LANGUAGE is the real break away from the previous plays: it is genuine, simple and straightforward language, but full of slang and colloquialism, provoking and revolutionary, crude, aggressive and violent. It has nothing to do with the conventional upper-class diction of the previous plays and it is easily understood by everybody.

THE SETTING, too, is shocking. It is the typical habitat of the working class families, depicted in accurate details: a shabby and gloomy room.

THE MAIN THEME is the struggling against Institutions. It develops through the widespread uneasiness of the young generation who are bored with the social injustice and the persistence of rigid class privileges and were dissatisfied with the stagnation of the economic and intellectual life of Britain. Osborne expresses his admiration for the rich humanity of the working class which contrasts the insensitivity and lack of value of the upper class. He also faces the theme of the Generation Gap between young people and adults.

Someone thinks that the Angry Generation of the 1950s was born when in 1950 the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge were opened to everybody, while before they were only accessible to wealthy students. The young people of the working class origin, represented on the stage by Jimmy Porter, find that contrary to their expectations, British society is by no means a meritocracy, but that success depends on social position and wealth.

There are also some sub-themes; among them we can mention the existential failure and the pain of being alive.

CHARACTERS: There are five characters in the play: Alison and her father Colonel Redfern, Jimmy Porter, his friend Cliff and Helena, an actress. They belong to different social classes: Alison and father are from upper-middle class, Helena from the middle, Jimmy and Cliff from the working class. The presence of Colonel Redfern is useful to show the differences with other people and to better represent the so called Generation Gap. As said before, the main character is Jimmy Porter. He becomes the voice of the young generation of after- war England because he expresses their way of thinking and their ideals of rebels, but also their frustrations and their awareness of a deluding present.


About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to JOHN OSBORNE AND Look Back in Anger

  1. Ashish Negi says:

    Read a nice article after a long time.

  2. hadoool says:

    well done
    thanks 🙂

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